Sounds of Sense: On Anna Mendelssohn’s Archive and a Reading of “A Crash”


Anna Mendelssohn was a poet, an artist, a parent and an activist. This essay is about the desire to visit and write about her archive as a hope of encouraging continued consideration of her work. It is about the idea that it is possible to achieve the “justice of a narrative” that assures her a place in histories of twentieth-century literary and artistic culture. [1] It also responds to this desire to narrate, as a position of authority in relation to Mendelssohn’s work, for how it feels uneasy, at times false.

I visit the Reading Room at The Keep, where Mendelssohn’s archive is held at the University of Sussex, on September 30th, 2022, and like the visits I make in the preceding months, I don’t have a clear sense of purpose or direction concerning the materials I view. I try to choose files that are described in generalized terms: files listed as “Study notes and poems” and “Background material”; files containing correspondence that is variously undated, or muddles a span of several years; others containing notes on topics as varied as psychology, Greek literature, the New Testament and the avant-garde. The vastness of Mendelssohn’s archive seems to invite this kind of wandering around. It contains 800 notebooks and an estimated minimum of 5,000 poems, all held (among other materials) in archival boxes that extend to roughly 100 feet of shelf space. [2][3]

During this visit, inside a file of miscellaneous correspondence, I come across what appears to be a rejection letter, dated July 6, 1984, and written by someone whose name I can’t decipher: [4]

A screenshot of the letter which has been written on a typewriter and corrected by hand. The opening of the letter is shown and reads as follows: "Dear G. Louise Lake - My feeling about your poems is that you're trying to say too much at once. You try to throw stones into the pond (stones of language) in hopes that the ripples will give you a poem. You are hanging on to the language like a life-raft. Or beating it like a servant, forcing it to serve you. Gentle, gentle." After a line break, the final sentence depicted reads, "Perhaps one image, one thing at a time?" 

Addressing Mendelssohn by one of her many chosen names, the writer of this letter tries to name the opposing attachments she finds in Mendelssohn’s poetic language. [5] The letter does not indicate to which poem she responds, nor are they inside this file, but she appears to speak broadly to describe Mendelssohn’s attitude to writing poetry in terms that suggest urgency, even desperation.

Thrown. Hung onto. Beaten or forced. At the point of being written or typed on the page, language becomes material. With the ability to act upon or using language, what do writers, poets, do? Is it self-directed—the mark made by an outstretched, or grasping hand? A raised fist? Does it perform or reproduce, appear analogously to external reality—one image, one thing, a freeze-frame? Or too many at a time, a blur?

According to this letter, Mendelssohn’s poetic language is dispensed with, possessed as vital or made vulnerable to maltreatment. She is charged with exhibiting an excess of will that makes too great a demand on language, presumably on a reader too, and strays too far from performing a description that could correspond to a comprehensible perception of reality (“one image, one thing at a time”). The letter writer’s description implies that it is difficult to make discernments about the content and meanings of Mendelssohn’s poems. Specifically, that they each say more than would befit a single poem, so don’t demonstrate the control that the letter writer finds appropriate to poetic form. More than that, the plea that Mendelssohn should instead be ‘Gentle, gentle’, may suggest that the control she seeks is gendered: befitting not only a poet but a woman poet.

The written word of the editor, critic, scholar or student, in return materializes—an overlay, an answer, no matter whether contradictory, once disparate parts since re-arranged in synthesis. Stones thrown back. A force re-exerted. Are these words gentle, or not?

The letter writer’s explanation of Mendelssohn’s poems in terms of a set of opposing attachments, and the difficulty posed by trying to interpret them, turns her towards the circumstances of Mendelssohn’s life. The ideas the writer “throw[s]” back take their cue from what she perceives to be Mendelssohn’s inner experience at the time of writing:

A screenshot of the final paragraphs from the same letter, which read as follows: "I throw these ideas at you, for I know how difficult it is to write and care for children - study and still keep sane. I tried for years to write poems in Cambridge; and now I read yours remembering how terrible it all was. Do take heart. Try to live as if the present were the past - all over and done with, and you so small in the corridors of history...well, not much consolation." After starting a new paragraph, the letter closes with the following: "Don't let the language be master. But don't beat it either. And of course, think of someone reading your poems out of her/his own life." Importantly, the pronoun "his" is added by hand as a correction, immediately below the typed pronoun “her.”

To counter this, and cope psychologically, the writer tells Mendelssohn (perhaps only half-seriously) “to live as if the present were the past,” and to inhabit a temporal position that Carolyn Steedman identifies as characteristic of the archive: “all over and done with,” or as Steedman says, ‘when it will have been’. [6] The letter writer summons contemporary readers’ position in the archive as a point of closure. But as a conclusion, this temporality never comes to pass: “the fragments, traces–all the inchoate stuff–” of the archive offer a representation of this past, which can be known only as ‘a structure or event in the ways that they are told and the omissions inherent to their telling. [7] 
The letter underscores how readings of Mendelssohn’s poetry can be influenced not only by perceptions of her circumstances (the here conflicting commitments to writing, motherhood and academic study) but of her emotional well-being. Its contents demonstrate an overdetermined reading, disclosing the letter writer’s assumption that Mendelssohn’s poetics are symptomatic of personal distress, and provoke the question of how Mendelssohn’s biographical context is involved in encounters with her poetry. This is a central proposition in the first special issue about Mendelssohn’s work. [8]

At the same time, the letter foregrounds the moment of reading her poetry and points directly towards its possible readership. When the writer asserts that Mendelssohn “think of someone reading [her] poems out of [their] own life,” she seems to suggest that Mendelssohn try to write poetry that is in some sense commensurate with the experiences of her readers, implying that the position of an imagined (barring correction, principally female) readership should in some way inform her poetic writing.

I want to take seriously the responsibility that the letter writer confers on Mendelssohn and her work, one that seems at least implicitly indebted to the political project of cultivating a shared or recognizably (gendered) experience through art, but am fixed by this reading of the relationship between Mendelssohn’s circumstances and her desire to write poetry as being one of opposition. This is not to ignore the lack of support that Mendelssohn herself protests in relation to her experiences as a student and a mother particularly. [9] Rather, it is to acknowledge how consideration of Mendelssohn’s creative and intellectual autonomy can be foreclosed by assumptions about the relationship between these commitments.

Elsewhere, and repeatedly in the archive, Mendelssohn describes the terms on which she wants to be read. An A4 sheet of pink paper, unlined and titled (tellingly, without a question mark), “How would I like my work to be used.”, reads: “from the Book, from the air, from the familiar. so familiar that description was love, & there was no danger of abusing the subject.” [10] Mendelssohn seems to say that she wants to be read as she has written (“from the Book” perhaps echoing the phrase, “by the book,” with distinction granted to the material itself by the capitalised “B”). Turning to the reverse, “from the air,” which may still encompass a certain dignity by its association with elevation, even loftiness, Mendelssohn also conjures the intangibility of breath, speech. But the passage culminates with the “familiar”: with Mendelssohn determined to be read in a situation of closeness or sustained relation, so strongly marked as to make description inseparable from affinity: recognition in the form of devotion. 


On July 3rd, 2018, I visit the Reading Room at The Keep for the first time. I am introduced to the work being undertaken by Professor Sara Crangle, then my academic advisor, to produce the first collected edition of Mendelssohn’s poetry. I am there with Sara and Sinéad Rawson, a fellow student, to discuss how Sinéad and I will help with proofreading this edition. I remember watching, in the solemn, vast room marked out by identical workspaces, sliding glass doors and distant ceilings, how the archivist demonstrates using both hands to turn the contents of a file one page at a time, always on an even surface, and recall their instruction never to rearrange the pages—to preserve the order that reflects how they were found.

I refer to the diary entry I write on July 3rd, and find my account of the guidance Sara gave me:

What Sara would like me to do is look at the notes she has made to accompany the “publishable” copies of Anna’s poems that she has compiled ready for the (approx. 450 page—that will still grow—) book. (I say “publishable” because there are so many versions and corrections Sara has put [them] into an absolute form, but thoroughly acknowledged the poetry’s non-absoluteness).

In this diary and elsewhere, I note repeatedly the details I should attend to within each poem draft to ensure consistency in my reading: the type and size of paper Mendelssohn uses, whether her words are written or typed, paginated, dated, located (at times they contain reference to where she is living) and whether one or more of her many chosen names are included. I will also note whether Mendelssohn makes corrections to these drafts—the variations in colors of ink or pencil on each page—and if they are given titles that are underlined and/or set apart.

This collected edition does not begin and end with the poems as they appear on its pages, but by attention to Mendelssohn’s own editorial work, the specificity of each manuscript and typescript page, allows for each poem to be opened up and read in its connection to the three decades of writing and art that comprises Mendelssohn’s archive. The A4 sheet of pink paper I referred to previously continues: “Long ways of writing are my ways. That is a definite characteristic of mine, I claim that, and I want there to be no confusion in regarding it.” [11]

With the publication of this edition, “I'm Working Here”: The Collected Poems of Anna Mendelssohn (2020), which by its release falls just short of 800 pages, many previously unpublished or unseen poems become available outside of the archive for the first time. As far as is yet known, prior to its publication in the Collected, one of the poems I come back to existed only as a single, undated, typescript draft. I believe that I first read this poem on that July day in the Reading Room, but the diary entry makes no reference to it. Somewhere between what I believe I remember but may only imagine, the intensity of feeling that responds to being trusted with this work, the voice I came to read and try to know as Mendelssohn’s own, the task-become-ritual of turning page after page.


Seeming to speak in the aftermath of “A Crash” by which the poem is titled, Mendelssohn negotiates voice as both a speaker and listener, asking after a sound that persists even as it seems about to falter: 

There is silence and silence,
yet still the sense screams
almost emptily
that, is that hope? that almost fortuitous almost, or

The sibilance in each line of this opening stanza conveys the quietness of a weakened scream which nevertheless breaks the “silence” that was “almost” interminable. But the sound of “sense” personified—here positioned as another speaker: the agonized voice to which the speaker of the poem listens—cannot be contained to one meaning. Among its many definitions, “sense” can refer to the organs of perception or their operation; bodily sensation; mental discernment or understanding; an intuitive act of imagination or feeling; that which is considered reasonable, or accepted by many to be a sound judgment.

Able to bear these multiple meanings, wherein may lie the possibility for hopefulness, “sense” occasions the question of what is not confounded by the paralysis or sudden failure intrinsic to a crash: the continued function of the sense organs as signs of life, emitting an outcry of an internalized feeling, and defying the silence that seems complicit in that feeling’s faltering.

I read Mendelssohn’s poetic voice here as responding to an imperative to speak what is known or can be knowable, in spite of having no one who can respond. Posed in this way and as a question, called into further doubt by the “or” at which both the line and stanza break, the fading sound of “sense” directly, though uncertainly, compels the speaker-listener.

With the alternate possibility afforded by the start of the second stanza, this uncertainty risks disconnection with the speaker-listener and the elision of their relation to the reader:

is the listener invented and lasts as long
whose left ear is my ear

These lines both undermine and compound the poem’s form of address, imperilling not only the veracity of what is heard, but the possibility of the listener’s position as one able to hear anything at all. Profound intimacy between speaker and listener, suggested by the relation of a shared “ear,” is created only after being undone. By the intensity of shared anatomy, which at the same time forecloses the possibility that the speaker-listener will be heard by anyone but themselves, the speaker-listener negotiates and works against how they will be received. In turn, as the reader is called upon by these rhetorical questions to try and discern the sound of ‘sense’, they become a kind of artifice conjured only in the relation of this lyric address. By how they foreshorten or predetermine the possibilities for the poem’s reception, these lines appear to invite the reader to attend to the marginalization of Mendelssohn’s own artistry. [12]

Yet the persistence of the auditory, asserted by this shared “left ear” and continued in the reverberations of soft, repeated sounds (the alliterative “l” of “listener,” “lasts,” “long” and “left”) calls attention to the hold of sound itself as a point of orientation that forms a pattern or order: a kind of “sense.”

Following this pattern, the “tears” that echo the “ear” and mirror its positioning at the break before the fourth stanza literally cut short the possibility for the continued sound of “hope”; instead, they depict the despair that the sound of “sense” may elicit.

and admonitions, were they? yet only thinking of one phrase,
smudged by tears

the intolerance of incompetence,
a mere judgement of another,
perpetually beating my heart into self-disgust at what i am incapable of

such as, playing the piano,
falling back into a range of explanations,

smudged by tears, gasping at the poverty

The sound of “sense” may actually be cautionary, an urgent but good-willed reproof. But in the shift from sound to a written word—these “admonitions” provoke the thought of this “one phrase/smudged by tears”—what may have sounded good-willed, even gentle, is now but “a mere judgement,” countering the speaker-listener’s previous assertions, and producing a more malicious kind of disbelief.

In response, the “heart” that seems to signify the speaker-listener’s interiority is purposefully misshapen. Mendelssohn’s movement toward articulable feeling (perhaps another kind of “sense”), mirrored by the reach of this line—the longest of the entire poem—is again withdrawn by the following stanza as the speaker-listener instead falls back into ambiguity, “into a range of explanations.” 

Observing the example that precedes this line (“such as playing the piano”) and indulging my own search for a person whom I could tell myself I know, I return to the thought of the summerhouse in which Mendelssohn lived towards the end of her life, the piano it held, and another drafted letter I find in the archive:

“I am an introspective writer, always have been; I admire writers who can read the outside world but I don’t understand the outside world. I only find it violent & brutal, loud, frightening & ugly. I am only truly happy when I am playing the piano.” [13]

The poem’s “i” that looks inwards, maybe even hints at a confessional voice, contorts itself in response to the “intolerance” conveyed by an outside “judgement,” so that the line in which the speaker-listener addresses themselves in the first-person is also a declaration of deficiency. The “range of explanations” given is itself “smudged by tears” in the poem’s subsequent line, attesting not only to the speaker-listener’s despair, but the futility of this effort to provide a response. The emotional force of the written word in the form of that “one phrase” seems undiminished by the tears that obscure it in the third stanza. But the ambiguity of the syntax when these tears recur suggests that the speaker-listener may not only be “falling back” into imprecise explanation, an insufficient attempt to provide a rational justification, but are themselves “smudged,” ultimately obscured, by self-persecutory feeling.

Returning to the audible, the speaker-listener nevertheless continues to persist in their gasp—another expression of distress—and tries again to meet expectations that are externally imposed:

smudged by tears, gasping at the poverty,
the stench, the wearing in of sympathy

as a social obligation,
to remind my forebears i cared,

In response to the emotional ties of inheritance, “poverty,” its “stench,” and compassion that is disingenuous (tried to be made more comfortable, like a pair of shoes), provoke a shock and refusal intended to prove the speaker-listener’s own depth of feeling. This effort is again rendered doubtful, and their sense of rejection compounded, by the question that opens the first line of the subsequent stanza:

if it interested them? who knows what hidden intentions,

not even known,
swimming on the ceiling in a land all alone,
that kicking at dust,

The rhetorical “who knows” that immediately follows this question prolongs the speaker-listener’s uncertainty, and expresses their continued doubt that there is anyone who may have an answer, or is able to respond. Without a clear origin or locus, perhaps alluding to the obscured position of the speaker-listener, “hidden intentions” that express an undisclosed purpose or direction of mind become implausible (“not even known”), detached “‘swimming on the ceiling in a land all alone”), ineffectual (”kicking at dust”).

After the question mark in the opening line of this stanza, the remainder of the poem proceeds as a single sentence which concludes with a full stop that ends the final line. The ambiguity of the syntax within this sentence makes possible a reading wherein the inhibition of the “hidden intentions” continues in various images of stasis or constraint. “[I]nescapably enmeshed in bleary feeling,” “starched in retrospect,” “caught with sunken feet”—these acts of directing the mind, already hidden, are variously trapped and fixed by feeling (“bleary,” in an echo of the previous tears) and thoughts of the past which cannot be stepped beyond.

In the midst of this, the subject of this open-ended, unabating sentence appears to shift, allowing the “hidden intentions” also to be named by the speaker-listener as “those million hopes for knowing.” In spite of their vastness, “hopes for knowing” that could undermine or undo the unanswerable “who knows,” or attest to a kind of notice that would allow for recognition (an awareness by means of the sense), are also cut short. The line that immediately follows breaks at the culmination of this possibility, but not without pointing towards what is at stake:  

those million hopes for knowing
amounting to a love of

Seeming to call forth another undated, handwritten, A4 page within Mendelssohn’s archive, the lack of concluding punctuation in this poem may imply a means of trying to defy the disbelief and rejection that the speaker-listener relays: “twenty thousands of doors being slammed after one have an appalling effect on an open ended syntactical approach to language. appalling the body becomes locked with each slam.” [14] An open-ended syntactical approach to language perseveres in “A Crash,” but as the following stanzas also show, repeated refusal works on the body to confounding, catastrophic effect:

door after door
screams persisting

and a heavy heart
altogether pulped

The hopeful possibility that opens the poem, encompassed by the faltering scream of “sense,” also seems here to be foreclosed. As though moving along a corridor or down a street where agonized (or agonizing) voices proliferate, the heart, formerly misshapen, is now indiscernible. By the final two stanzas, the speaker-listener seems to have left this body behind, reaching much further, in a tone that speaks from a position that is well versed, resolute:

in an unchartable wayward world
wind created, rescued, crushed

an unreal reality chewing sounded
sounding despicable, unforgivable, understandable.

A “crash” conjures the disavowal of movement, or sudden collapse; the violent percussion of a body or bodies colliding, being broken apart. On meeting, forces opposed are mired down by the wreckage that results. As the speaker-listener describes, with the paradoxically pulsating rhythm of a recurring “d” sound, the force of the wind is both vital and destructive; the reality that is simultaneously beyond belief, invented, still sounds; and together with a world unmapped, unknowable, remains (in some sense) accepted, available to be understood.


Works Cited

Anna Mendelssohn Archive. University of Sussex Special Collections, The Keep, Brighton. https://www.thekeep.info/collections/getrecord/GB181_SxMs109

Careless, E. and Sparrow, V., “‘Poetry does not deserve evil keepers.’ Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, 12(1), 2023. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/bip.10279. [Accessed: 01/07/2023].

Crangle, Sara. “Vanguard Women—A Welcome to the Anna Mendelssohn Papers”, recorded at The Keep archive, Falmer, Brighton, October 16, 2015. https://modernistudies.wordpress.com/2015/09/26/upcoming-event-announcement-vanguard-women-a-welcome-to-the-anna-mendelssohn-papers/

Crangle, Sara. “We’re Working Here: Anna Mendelssohn’s Collected Poetry Launch Event 2021”, filmed March 23, 2021. Hosted by the87press. Video of talk, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPOjFzDEZU0.

Mendelssohn, Anna. “A Crash.” “I’m Working Here”: The Collected Poems of Anna Mendelssohn, edited by Sara Crangle, pp. 508-09. Swindon, United Kingdom: Shearsman Books, 2020.

Crangle, Sara. “Hear, Now. Episode 23: Anna Mendelssohn”, Hear, Now. A Podcast from Whitechapel Gallery. Spotify. January 2, 2024. https://open.spotify.com/episode/6r1mjUczgTVCnOs1MGOIFs?si=MmXlWsJCSPyz7DH7iMA1BQ [Accessed: 03/01/2024].

Steedman, Carolyn. Dust. Manchester, Great Britain: Manchester University Press, 2001.


[1] Carolyn Steedman, Dust. (Manchester, Great Britain: Manchester University Press, 2001), 163.

[2] Sara Crangle (ed.), “Introduction”, “I’m Working Here”: The Collected Poems of Anna Mendelssohn. (Swindon, United Kingdom: Shearsman Books, 2020), 31.

[3] Sara Crangle, “Vanguard Women: A Welcome to the Anna Mendelssohn Papers.” October 16, 2015, Centre for Modernist Studies, University of Sussex, 22:05.

[4] “1960, 1970-1986,” SxMs109/3/B/1. In an email communication about this essay, Professor Sara Crangle (in ways characteristically discerning and generous) observed that this letter is assuredly from Anne Stevenson, former editor of the journal Other Poetry (email communication April 2, 2024). On page 73 of her introduction to “I’m Working Here”: The Collected Poems of Anna Mendelssohn, Sara speaks directly to Stevenson’s editorship and aspirations for Other Poetry, and conveys how Mendelssohn’s submission is "wholly antithetical" to the conciliatory tone of certain poems the journal can be seen to include. The poem that Mendelssohn submitted and to which Stevenson is responding in this letter (“point a finger at him”) can be found on page 167 of the collected edition.

[5] Mendelssohn legally changes her birth name, Anne Mendleson, to Sylvia Grace Louise Lake in March 1983. After Anna Mendelssohn, Grace Lake is perhaps the name by which her poetry is most widely known. Please see notes 71 and 296 in Crangle, 2020 (pages 94 and 106), for a fulsome account of the different names that Mendelssohn uses.

[6] Steedman, 7.

[7] ibid 154.

[8] “How is the literary critic to deal with the biographical and political contexts—such as Mendelssohn’s incarceration in the 1970s for alleged involvement with the anti-capitalist militants known as the Angry Brigade, or the precarity of her later life in Cambridge—which seem to both intrude upon and inhere within her texts; are these concerns to be kept in or kept out?” Eleanor Careless and Vicky Sparrow, “‘Poetry does not deserve evil keepers’”, Journal of British Irish Innovative Poetry 12 (1), DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/bip.10279.

[9] In July 1984, Mendelssohn had recently begun an English degree at the University of Cambridge and was a mother of two: Poppy, born in July 1980 and George, born in February 1984. In August 1985, her third child, Emerald, would be born. In her final exams, Mendelssohn ignored the questions and instead wrote a protest against the lack of nursery provision at the university. She would later petition successfully to have her result changed from a “fail” to “unclassified.” Crangle, “Introduction”, ‘I’m Working Here’: The Collected Poems of Anna Mendelssohn, 30.

[10] “Study notes and poems”, SxMs109/6/A/2/11.

[11] “Study notes and poems”, SxMs109/6/A/2/11. Pulling against Mendelssohn’s insistence against confusion, this passage may also allude to her inclination towards (for typesetters, at times, troublesomely) long lines in her poetry. The trim size of the collected edition itself—a wonderfully unwieldy 8.5 x 8.5 inches—attests to this inclination also.

[12] In a conversation that accompanied the first institutional exhibition of Mendelssohn’s artwork, Sara Crangle observes the nexus of intimacy and rebuttal in which readers of Mendelssohn’s poetry become involved: “[the] consistent edit [Mendelssohn] makes in her poetry is to excise the first person pronoun […] she doesn’t want it to be about her own life and she doesn’t want you to interpret that because she was over-interpreted by the press, she was over-interpreted by society […] but nevertheless, she both is asking for that intimacy [and] also pushing you away […] there’s this feeling always of rebuttal, as well as coming closer” (13:07-13:46). Sara Crangle, “Hear, Now. Episode 23: Anna Mendelssohn”, Hear, Now. A Podcast from Whitechapel Gallery, Spotify, January 2, 2024. 

[13] Dated “1st October 1997” and addressed to “Anna”; “ANNA”, SxMs109/3/A/2/1. At the launch event to accompany the release of the collected edition, Sara displays images of the summerhouse in Cambridge where Mendelssohn lived (1:51-1:59, 2021); among the countless books and papers, there is at least one piano.

[14] “Notes: topics including literary ethics, poetry, Greek literature and higher education”, SxMs109/6/B/14.


I am gladly indebted to Alicia Wright for her commitment as an editor, her grace and good humour, and her sheer resolve. I’m especially grateful for her hand in bringing the ideas in this essay into conversation with Noa Fields, Ayaz Muratoglu and Stephen Ira, via Annulet's inaugural Critical Circle in 2023. Without theirs and Alicia’s insights and advice, this essay wouldn’t have been written. I owe more thanks to Anna Mendelssohn’s children, Poppy, George and Emerald, than I know how to give, both for their permission to publish the materials referred to in this essay, and for donating Anna’s archive to the University of Sussex’s Special Collections. My thanks to Sara Crangle, always, for that Beast of a book, for assuming the best of me, and for the heart that you put into your work. It continues to stagger me, and I don’t know where I would be without it.


George Clutterbuck is a PhD student in English at the University of Sussex. Her research is about aesthetics of disaffection in the work of Laura (Riding) Jackson, Eva Frankfurther and Anna Mendelssohn. She is based in Pagham, Bognor Regis, in the UK. She keeps an irregular research blog called sustaining doubt and her poems have appeared in Hollow Earth Review, Perverse and most recently in Steel Incisors’ visual poetry anthology, Seeing in Tongues.